Abbas: No asylum for supporters from Gaza

Monday, August 4, 2008

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday refused to grant West Bank asylum to forces who fled weekend faction fighting in Hamas-ruled Gaza, despite fears for their safety.

Abbas ordered nearly 200 fighters back to Gaza from Israel, insisting a Fatah presence must be retained in the territory, which has been controlled by Hamas since a violent takeover in June 2007. Fatah is not prepared to write off Gaza, and Abbas also fears that an entrenched Hamas there could export rebellion to the West Bank, where he rules.

Hamas confirmed it detained the first group of 32 who were sent back to Gaza on Sunday, but said it released all but five in that group.

The wrangling over the fate of the 188 Fatah refugees came a day after the bloodiest Hamas-Fatah fighting since Hamas took control of Gaza. In all, 11 people were killed and dozens wounded during a Hamas raid on a Fatah stronghold in Gaza City on Saturday.

The latest round of internal fighting began on July 25 with a car bomb that killed five Hamas members in Gaza City. Hamas, blaming Fatah, rounded up dozens of Fatah activists, and Fatah, which controls the West Bank, responded with arrest sweeps of Hamas supporters.

On Saturday, Hamas raided a Gaza City stronghold of the Hilles clan, whose leaders support Fatah but have forged ties with Hamas. The two sides battled for hours, firing mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns.

As Hamas forces took control of the area Saturday afternoon, dozens of Hilles clan members fled toward the nearby Israeli border crossing of Nahal Oz.

"We crawled to the border, that was our solution, and I think we stayed at the border for two or three hours until the [Israeli] army let the injured enter," said Shadi Hilles, one of the wounded clan members.

Col. Ron Ashrov, an Israeli military commander in the area, said that when Israeli soldiers went to open the gate, heavy fire erupted from Hamas forces. He said 22 of those who crossed were injured.

The escape posed a dilemma for Abbas.

After the Hamas takeover of Gaza last summer, he agreed to resettle some 250 of his Gaza loyalists in the West Bank. It's been a costly arrangement -- the refugees each get $350 a month, in addition to government salaries. The 2007 exodus also sent a message that Fatah is abandoning Gaza to Hamas.

Abbas wanted to send a different message this time, aides said.

"Fatah officials in Gaza should stay in their posts and should not leave Gaza to Hamas," Fahmi Zaghrir, a West Bank spokesman for Fatah, said Sunday. An exception would be made for those wanted by Hamas, added Nimr Hamad, an Abbas adviser.

In Jordan for talks on Sunday, Abbas called for dialogue to solve the dispute. He said the Palestinians must "continue to hope, even if we fight between each other or have differences."

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